Women, Sex and History, and panel discussion as part of the Leeds Big Bookend, Saturday 16 June.

As Anne O’Brien, one of the four authors speaking at Saturday’s ‘Women, Sex and History’ talk as part of the Leeds Big Bookend quoted, Jane Austen was not a fan of history as she saw it. In Northanger Abbey, Catherine Morland quips “The quarrels of popes and kings, with wars or pestilences, in every page; the men all so good for nothing, and hardly any women at all”. Fortunately, this is no longer the case, and historical fiction continues to be a genre that grows and grows.

Saturday’s talk was a panel discussion chaired by historian and former curator Hallie Rubenhold, wearing a fabulous pair of bright red wedges, and included authors Gabrielle Kimm, Jane Borodale and Anne O’Brien. These women write about a wide range of subjects that all happen to be in the past, from Anne O’Brien’s Medieval Ladies of Court, to Gabrielle Kimm’s Renaissance Courtesans and Jane Borodale’s Georgian firework makers. One this that unites them is a passion for their characters, and the lives which they would have led.

There was a lot of focus throughout the discussion on ‘forgotten’ histories. With the success of things such as Horrible Histories and People’s Museums there is, I believe, a growing awareness of the history of the everyday. Fiction reflects on this trend, and these authors, through their research, reveal a side to history that might not be in the text books.

As Jane Borodale pointed out, historical fiction has a role to play especially in bringing out women’s secret history. I had no idea until this panel discussion that before the Victorian moralist times abortion was a standard rather than contraception, with one in five of the herbs in popular herbals of the time ‘bringing on the menses’ or ‘clearing female blockages’. In public gardens and parks, herbs were grown that would end a pregnancy for the public to help themselves to. What a difference 200 years of misogynistic ‘morality’ makes!

Gabrielle Kimm also had me clenching my thighs discussing 500 year old diaphragms made of hollowed out halves of lime that apparently work (not that I’m going to be testing this theory…), and the discussion on motherhood and how attached, or otherwise women were with their children (when Anne of Neville and the Duke of Gloucester lost their nine year old son, their mourning for him was seen as excessive by the Plantagenet Court) was fascinating.

So were women as oppressed as history makes them out? The authors seemed to agree, this depends entirely on their class. Whilst a daughter of an Earl might have very little choice as to whom she marries or where she lives, the Renaissance Courtesans, Gabrielle Kimm boldly claims, were the first feminists, a statement which I don’t entirely agree with. Hallie Rubenhold rightly pointed out, ‘history’ is the history of the rich, the poor were the majority, and the rules that applied to one set did not necessarily apply to the other. The history of women, however, is the history of how we survive. In a world where the only chance of upward mobility is prostitution, education, property ownership and medicine are barred, and one in three children dies before their fifth birthday, this is a hard slog, but makes for a good story.

What really came out from Saturday’s discussion was how universal emotion is, and how much work goes into writing historical fiction. Jane Borodale actually did a Tudor Dairy course in order to learn which muscles would be aching at the end of her character’s day. This again makes you rethink how we see history-the corsets that I see as constrictive fashions actually support your back whilst doing manual labour when fitted properly.

This was a fascinating and worthwhile discussion, and an excellent addition to this debut festival and I will definitely be looking up more of these author’s work in the future.


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